Objective Opinions are conflicting about 3-field lymph node dissection (3FLND) during esophagectomy for esophageal cancer. In the current study, we sought to determine the prevalence of cervical and upper thoracic lymph node metastasis in patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the thoracic esophagus and to determine the impact of 3FLND on mortality, morbidity, survival, and recurrence rate. Materials and methods Among 287 patients with squamous cell carcinoma of the thoracic esophagus seen between November 1985 and December 2001, 141 (49%) underwent extended esophagectomy with 3FLND (cervical, mediastinal, and abdominal lymph node dissection). Patients were observed and clinicopathologic information collected prospectively on all patients until death or August 2002. The median follow-up was 41 months, ranging from 10 to 173 months. Results Hospital mortality and morbidity rates were 6.4% and 80%, respectively. Thirty-four of 70 node-positive patients had cervicothoracic nodal involvement. Sixteen patients (11%) had nodal involvement confined only to the cervicothoracic nodes, and no patients with lower thoracic esophageal carcinoma showed cervicothoracic involvement alone. The frequency of cervical nodal disease was correlated with nodal status within the mediastinum ( P <0.01). The 1-, 3-, and 5-year overall survival rates for all 141 patients were 76%, 58%, and 48%, respectively. Among significant variables verified by univariate analysis, independent prognostic factors for overall survival determined by multivariate analysis were number of lymph node metastasis ( P <0.01), amount of blood transfusion ( P <0.05), length of operation ( P <0.05), and presence of pulmonary complications ( P <0.05). Conclusions Extended esophagectomy with 3FLND can be performed with an acceptable mortality. Metastases frequently involved the upper thoracic and cervical lesions, and cervical nodal disease was correlated with thoracic nodal status. 3FLND proved to be an important staging system in 11% of patients. An excellent overall survival suggests a superiority of 3FLND when performed at experienced centers.